Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Robben Island: 'Iron sharpens iron'

The view from the top of Table Mountain.
Today, we went to Table Mountain together and tried to absorb the beauty of the bright sun, clear blue sky, stunning views of Capetown and the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Several of us left remarking that it is hard to understand how anyone could see all of that and doubt the existence of God the creator.

After leaving Table Mountain we power walked behind our intrepid and gifted leader Tony to take the Ferry to Robben Island. This part of the day is the focus for my contribution to this blog.

I have vivid memories of both Apartheid and Nelson Mandela dating back to earlier in my career in New York City. One of my managers emigrated from South Africa and our large international company was barred from bidding certain public projects because they still had a business in South Africa that did business with the national government there.

I also remember watching the news as the riots erupted in South Africa and wondered what a prisoner identified in the news as a terrorist would do to that country if released. I had a typically limited perspective that was formed by reading my local newspaper (yes, a real paper newspaper!) 25 or so years ago. Those two factors helped me pay closer attention to what happened once Mandela was released, and later as he helped South Africa emerge from their revolution.

In 2009, I started my journey to become a pastor in the United Methodist Church by joining Christian Life Prison Ministry in the Philadelphia Prisons. Serving God way outside of my comfort zone opened my eyes and my heart to the true power of our Redeemer, Jesus Christ. I have been blessed beyond all understanding learning how to love from the men that lead that ministry.

Mandela's cell.
Nelson Mandela did not just survive 27 brutal years in prison. He earned degrees, he taught fellow prisoners and maintained his dignity. He felt it was vital to learn the language of his oppressor, Afrikaans, in order to negotiate and work with them. Most of his fellow inmates strongly disagreed with him on this issue. After seeing his cell and in particular, his bedding, I realized his experience demonstrated the truth of scripture in Proverbs 27:15, “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of another.”
Our guide was a former political prisoner imprisoned in the 1980’s for sabotage. His accent was difficult to follow at times during his prepared remarks. I asked him several times to help me understand his name and how to spell it. Ultimately, he just smiled and said to call him 'Mcungo.'

He was asked by a member of the group if  the sparse bedding displayed during the presentation was enough when it was cold. Mcungo struggled a little to answer and stopped himself and said, “We survived. It was terrible cold but the human body can endure very much discomfort.”

Nelson Mandela did more than merely survive his imprisonment. He and his fellow political prisoners inspired the United Nations to declare Robben Island a World Heritage site with this description repeated to us by our tour bus driver, “Robben Island is a testimony to the triumph of the human spirit of freedom and democracy over oppression.”

After visiting the prison, our bus driver gave us a tour of the island. He was not a prisoner and tried valiantly to get us to remember his name. His good humor and dignified explanations and circumstances moved all of us. We saw the quarry where the political prisoners broke limestone into rocks and then into dust.

The driver continued in the spirit of the mystery and inspiration of Robben Island by including a remarkable explanation of how the cave in this photo (left) was not just used for meals and buckets to use for relief, but for education, encouragement and support as well. We stopped for a quick refreshment and bathroom break and saw native penguins on the rocks with more incredible views of Capetown only 7km across the bay.

I will never forget a short conversation I had with Dick Pry on the cruelty of life on Robben Island in full view of one of the most beautiful cities on earth. We could not imagine what went through their minds seeing that and knowing their families where there and cut off from all visits and even letters for years at a time for so many prisoners.

The view of Capetown from Robben Island.
I simply cannot imagine a weekend under those circumstances, let alone almost three decades of the prime of my life. It is easy to dwell on the bedding, the cells, the brutal work in the quarry and even the censored letters and years of denied family visits.

Those topics deserve understanding beyond my capabilities of a one-time blogger. For more information I recommend Mandela’s book, titled "Long Walk to Freedom," and "Bring Me My Machinegun: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa from Mandela to Zuma," by Alec Russell.

We traveled back to Capetown on a very fast dual hull ferry watching seals and thousands of birds follow their instincts. We broke up into a few groups for dinner and wandering on Victoria Wharf to watch more seals, an incredible sunset and absorbed astonishing beauty and affluence. Many of us reflected on the contrast of this night and compared it to many of the experiences of our trip. According to Bring me my Machine Gun, South Africa has the largest disparity between the rich and the poor. Each of us struggled in our own way to balance our own affluence with the tremendous poverty we witnessed during the trip.

The enduring impact of this trip will be different for each of us. It will take significant time to digest all of the experiences. I went on this trip with a very strong need to hold the bars of Mandela’s cell and smell the concrete and dampness there. I had hopes that I would understand how this man emerged from imprisonment with a heart to heal instead of vengeance.

How this man and his colleagues emerged from Robben Island to choose forgiveness provides evidence of God’s abundant grace. Nelson Mandela virtually won the first free election in South Africa by acclimation and chose reconciliation, not vengeance. After his election, he established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate and (most often) pardon many of the white oppressors that tortured or even killed blacks during Apartheid.

I treasured the opportunity I had to absorb this place. The fruit of God’s work in South Africa is clearly more powerful than the evil that dwelled on this island. I am thankful to God that I can see modern day evidence of a man that could not merely survive 27 years of prison and abuse, but grow in strength and dignity to choose reconciliation over revenge. Light over darkness. The triumph of the human spirit made possible in these circumstances could only come from God.
-Patrick Welch

Last Day: 'To be the hands and feet of Christ'

It is Monday afternoon in South Africa and the time has come for the Hopewell mission team to begin its trip back to Pennsylvania.  This final post covers two incredible days of activity in Potchefstroom.  Sunday morning we worshiped at the Apostolic Mission Church.  This service had a different feel to it as we alternated between music and testimony for two hours as small and large group of praise worship singers went up to sing and dance.  The rhythm of these worship forms bound us up into a closely knit family that swayed and rocked to the music.  Some moved up and down the aisle, blowing whistles while other stood in their place, clapping hands, tapping feet and smiling broadly as they felt the Holy Spirit moving through them.

When it came time for prayer, unlike our pattern back home of having one person pray for the congregation, here the entire congregation prays at once.  A chorus of voices, passionate and full, rose above us, ascending to the heavens, continuing for several minutes and I’m thinking God must have been smiling to hear this chorus of praise.
The dress of many of the women was colorful and stylish. Some wore dresses of African colors, red, black and green, while others were dressed in white, shoes, dress and gloves. Still others, more elderly, wore a formal black dress, but whatever they wore, it was clear that they loved their worship and for two plus hours they moved up and back, fully engaged in worshipping God.

We had to leave before we even heard the message as our group was scheduled to make its first stop at Mosaic, a ministry that Hopewell has been supporting for many years now. Two of our own, Jordan Ridge, our current missionary and Jen Lisowski our first missionary, have spent a total of 8 years in Ikageng where Mosaic is located. Read about this mission here.

We spent the afternoon sharing food together and then broke up into five teams of Mosaic kids and Hopewell mission members and we had a competition of talent where we learned dance steps or words to a song that were specific to their culture.  Needless to say, we had a great time, making fools of ourselves as we tried to learn our respective pieces. It was all fun and we so much enjoyed interacting with them.

That evening, we gathered for dinner at our B&B and after dinner we had our last devotional.  This was a different format as we each drew the name of one person in our group, and we were to affirm that person by highlighting aspects of them that we observed during the two weeks that we have been gone.  It was a time of laughter and tears, of moving close to God through the observance of His will at work in our team member.  Each of us was overwhelmed with gratitude at the words that were spoken. It was a holy moment to hear how God had used each of us to be that pebble in the pond, knowing that the ripples were His will at work, touching so many others whom we cannot yet see.

Today, we traveled back to Mosaic to see the “Made by Mosaic” store where artisans and craft persons are employed manufacturing various articles of merchandise including scarves, duffle bags, handbags, wallets, chutney, spices, among other items.  This is the job-creating business that was launched by our very own Jordan Ridge shortly after she arrived in South Africa nearly four years ago. After Jordan explained the evolution of Made by Mosaic, we loaded up on early Christmas presents and came out weighed down with gifts.  Meyer and Louise Conradie, leaders of Mosaic, brought us into the community center to pray for us, a tender moment for many in our group as Hopewell has had such a long relationship with both of them and with Mosaic. Later we stopped by to see Made by Mosaic’s new industrial kitchen that is located in another place where they are making and selling Rusks (a South African biscuit often dipped in coffee), cookies, onion marmalade and ‘braai’ (barbecue) spices. They have a contract with a large grocery chain here and are looking to expand to other vendors.

Our last stop, perhaps the one that brought most of us to our knees, was to visit Aunt Suzie, a woman with a mission for the elderly in Ikageng. Hopewell has been working with her for many years and she has a heart for those in advanced years. She is getting ready to turn 80 this year and still has lots of energy and goals to achieve.  Tony Brantzeg quoted her today when he reminded her that she once said, “sit down and you rot.”  She has several elderly women who help sew clothing for sale and also in the garden that is attached to the building. We visited and listened to her women sing us more than one hymn and also raise us up in prayer. Their voices were remarkable, singing in Tswana, their native language, about God and blessings and love.  We then offered our own blessing back to them as we presented them with wooden crosses made by Kayla Foster and anointed the elderlies and all the team members.  We stood there, black and white, young and old, women and men, all with a common goal, to be the hands and feet of Christ in this world.

It is impossible to sum up the last two weeks in any meaningful way. Each of us will be unpacking more than luggage when we get home tomorrow. We traveled through this beautiful country and saw sights that both were beautiful (Cape Town and Table Mountain) and heart breaking (Robben Island, Plantjies) yet filled with possibilities of hope.  We are leaving this part of our journey in God’s hands. For all those who supported us in prayer or cards and notes, we are thankful beyond measure.  We said goodbye to Jordan today, with her proud dad Jamie closing us in prayer as we laid hands upon her and prayed for God’s hands to be on her and for continued direction and support.  That prayer applies to all of us as we seek to understand God’s will for our own lives. Go with God folks. 
-Pastor John Neider

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Day 7: We saw God, we saw hope

Our work in Plantjies has ended. So much has been accomplished, yet there is still so much to do. I am full of mixed emotions over it.

The park has been cleaned, trees have been planted, and sod has been put down.

Play equipment was cleaned and painted.

The community center has a roof and one container is nearly ready for finishing work.

Most importantly, the children have been loved on and the people have seen the power of God at work.

Today we started our day by praying in the park. Each of us did an individual prayer walk then we joined together for a group prayer. It was favorite morning by far. I prayed for the trees and the grass. I prayed for the children and the adults. I prayed for Nielen and his ongoing vision here. I prayed for myself. There is nothing better than the feeling of so many prayers being sent up all for the same things.

After that, though, it was time to work. We had a lot to get done before the end of the day. Many of us were tasked with laying down the sod. It was backbreaking work.

Several were asked to continue inside the container hanging drywall and insulation, and finishing other details.

Still more people were given paint brushes and asked to continue the beautification of the containers. The lime green/neon yellow color is amazing!

Did we get it all done? No. I struggle with that. I struggle knowing that we have left Nielen without a completed "home base" to continue his work in Plantjies. I struggle with the fear that some might take advantage of that and chip away at the foundation. I struggle thinking that I should have done more.

But the people of Plantjies are greatful. In their eyes, we accomplished more than they could have imagined. We came, we worked, and we showed them love.

At the end of the day, we gathered all the community and all of our workers and prayed together. After prayer, two women spoke (with Nielen as a translator). They both said nearly the same thing. They thanked us for showing their children love. For focusing on their children and showing them love. How humbling to know that the hugs and kisses and laughter were the greatest need - and we filled that need.

That goes a long way to healing my heart.

There are no words that can express how grateful we all are to have been given this opportunity. During devotions we talked about the fact that nothing we did in Plantjies would grow without God. Plantjies needs God to grow in it's heart - in the hearts of the people - to truly have the changes we made take shape into something meaningful.

...and we saw God there. We saw the faithful. We saw the hope. Most importantly, we saw the seeds of faith taking root in people. So we now have hope, and we will continue to pray for the greater things yet to come.
-Tracey Fernandez

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Day 6: Cecil's Soup Kitchen

Wednesday morning started as all the others. Poured my first cup of coffee down the front of my shirt, but made it to my mouth on the second try. Then I woke up. After scarfing a fantastic breakfast (much thanks Luzanne), we all headed out to Plankies to begin our work day. Mark, Shannon, John, Jen, Kathy, Matt and I worked  for about an hour then piled into the Mosaic van. Jen skillfully navigated the traffic, regardless of the fact that the vehicle had a manual transmission, she was driving in the wrong side of the van, and everybody else was driving on the wrong side of the road. Figure that one out. Anyway, we arrived at H.O.P.E ministry in good time and were warmly greeted by Cecil Begby, the spoon-head of souperation. After being given a short history of the ministry, we walked into the garage-turned-soup kitchen and began chopping vegetables.

Mark was dubbed the “leek ninja,” John was our DJ, Matt sliced and diced with careful method, Kathy (being a vegetarian) was in euphoria, and I, of course was labeled “the redneck” because I savagely attacked the cabbage with my hunting knife. While we were busy destroying the roughage, Jen and Shannon were professionally blending, washing, and generally keeping things in control. Eventually, our concoction was created and ready to be served. We loaded the pots into the back of a matchbox-pickup and drove across the road to a crowd of people, waiting for their daily sustenance. I was given the joyful duty of serving the soup and found it a privilege to feed these hungry men, women and children. The gratitude in their voices was unmistakable; the smiles, genuine. The children plopped down onto the ground, slurping and spilling, the women gathered, laughing with each other and giving their babies little bits of potato or carrot. The men shuffled around, munching the bread and muttering in Afrikaans “danke” (thank you), or “Parsley? Really?” After this group was fed, we drove to a close-by neighborhood and repeated the process. Shannon and I served the soup, Mark supplied the bread and Matt distributed it, Kathy handed out cups with John and Jen kept the peace. Cecil was also there, speaking kindly to the children and keeping order in the line.

On our final soup stop, I found myself standing around, not serving or distributing, and decided to introduce myself to the younger population, ages ranging from about 2 to maybe 13. I got a ripple of giggles when I crossed my eyes, and disturbingly, even more when I uncrossed them. I challenged the quickest of them to a footrace and lost, with a good deal of semantics. By the end of the footrace business, the entire younger population was stampeding up and down the street, yelling with delight and having a grand time out-running the much-winded, cross-eyed American. Before we left, I called all the children around me and dropped to a knee. “Ok everybody”, I said, “I would like to pray with you! So fold your hands, close your eyes and bow your heads. Lets pray.” Thirty little heads, bowed and sixty tiny hands folded, and I prayed. It was time to leave. I reluctantly stepped into the van, waving goodbye to the children and crossing my eyes for good measure. As we drove away, a crowd of young ones chased after us, waving, yelling and laughing, their little bellies full of H.O.P.E  soup. A small piece of my heart is gonna stay on that dirty street, with those boys and girls. And, I’m gladdened to remember that theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Will Gondy

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Day 5: Nederburg Primary School provides hope

For the past four days at our work site in Plantjies, South Africa, we have been blessed with an abundance of young children who have provided plenty of ‘feet and hands’ to assist in our work. The good news is that these sweet children, from one of the poorest neighborhoods in the region, are more than willing to work hard on a worthwhile project in their community. The bad news?  Many of these kids should be in school, which is supposedly mandatory in the country, unless you live in a neighborhood like Plantjies, which has slipped through many societal cracks.

Great public schools do exist for elementary-aged children in this vast country, and we had the honor of visiting one of them during a field trip to the Nederburg Primary School on Tuesday of this week. Immediately on entering the school grounds, we were warmly greeted by Principal Melville Lawrence, who led us directly into a reception with his school staff. The school is known for its dedicated teachers and faculty, and those qualities were evident throughout the morning as we visited many classrooms and interacted with students from pre-Kindergarten through 7th grade.

Hopewell has supported the Nederburg Primary School through the Beyond the Walls campaign for nearly 10 years. The contributions have been used in various ways by the school’s leadership to supplement the bare-bones funding provided through the South African government. The most recent contribution of $2,500 will be put to good use in the school’s computer center, and possibly renovating Kindergarten classrooms that are in need of repair.

One of the highlights of our visit was a spirited recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in Afrikaans by a 4th grade class. Another was the excitement on the faces of the young boys as they watched 6’5” mission team member Mark Lisowski walk toward them on the school’s playground. It was fun to watch the students walk up to Mark – eager to see how they might measure up – and then laugh as they fell far short.

As we prepared to depart to return to our worksite for the day, one of the school’s most highly-ranked students, a  7th grade girl who Principal Lawrence described as “always radiant,” shared her award winning version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood,’ in which the brave and resourceful Red was more than a match for a hapless wolf. The student’s confident and animated recital of her work – without a note to assist her – was the perfect send off for our group, and provided hope that Mosaic’s vision for the Plantjies neighborhood will produce similarly-dedicated students in the future – ready to lead their community to a better place.

I know our 23 member mission crew, which has worked hard throughout our stay in the Paarl Valley, will be praying for similarly bright futures for the wonderful children of Plantjies.
Jamie Ridge

Monday, August 17, 2015

Day 4: 'We have worshipped!'

We have been to church and we have WORSHIPED!!!  Pastor Eugene Maqwelana and his amazing congregation welcomed us with open arms and drew us into their world of song, prayer, the Word, and message.  Strains of “Oh, come let us adore Him, oh, come let us adore Him, oh come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!” were woven through the two hours of worship and we all agreed that the song should not be reserved for the Christmas season!  It felt so perfect to sing those words as an act of worship in August.

Living Hope Community Church designated this month to honor women, so the worship focus continually came back around to mothers, grandmothers, and children and families, also challenging men to step up to parenting leadership.  Pastor Eugene’s message (delivered in English, which was a gift to us Americans!) was anchored in the text of Matthew’s first chapter- the angel’s call to Mary and to Joseph, the Chosen, to bear and raise God’s son.  He then reminded each one of us that we, too, are ‘chosen’ by God’ for his purposes.  Worship ended with the dedication of the children of the congregation.  Each little child was anointed and given a certificate.  Added to these highlights were precious moments where we all had the opportunity to hug and be hugged.  Suffice it to say that the Holy Spirit was so very present and many tears were shed.  It was a powerful, powerful time of fellowship.

From there we stepped out into the bright South African sun and a temperature of probably 63%- just a stunning day.  We made our way to the brand new Mbekweni Youth Center, a Place of Hope, that had just opened a couple of weeks ago!   A former ‘beer hall’ of days gone by, Mbekweni was the vision of Pastor Eugene, a former professional rugby player who then enlisted businesses who agreed to fund the project.  It is bright, spacious, well-equipped and inviting- surely a Place of Hope for the youth of this very poor community.  We were treated to a beautiful traditional South African lunch, lovingly prepared by the women of the church.

From there we traveled over hill and dale, through the quaint town of Paarl and out into countryside to tour Spice Route, a brewery and chocolate factory.  The views from the top of the hill were just stunning…  Following that, some of our team members headed back to the guest house for a little downtime, while others went to the harbor in Cape Town to enjoy dinner and experience a bit of the excitement that is the waterfront there.  At the end of each day we are humbled by it all and we praise God for the opportunity to be here, to serve here and to be a part of something so much bigger than ourselves.
Pastor Vicki Pry

Pastor Vicki spoke on behalf of the Hopewell team during worship.

Living Hope Pastor Eugene Maqwelana and Nielen Bekker, Manager of Mosaic, Paarl Valley.

Nelson Mandela mural at Mbekweni Youth Center.

Day 3: Dreary weather, but spirits are high!

Today was work day number three in Plantjies. The weather was dreary, but the children’s’ spirits were high. Today’s goal was to finish the roof before the rain came, but thankfully the heavy rain never came and the roof was finished. We had crews working on the roof, inside one of the storage containers, spreading topsoil and playing with all of the kids. The insulation was finished and the beginnings of drywall were happening inside the storage container. All of the children of Plantjies are so eager to help, and they worked with us until all of topsoil was moved around so there are not as many holes and no piles of dirt left. We wanted to play games with the kids to keep them busy and entertained. One of the adults came over and helped organize all of the kids so they could sing and dance to songs all of them knew from school. We had a dedication ceremony as the last beam of the roof was hoisted up.

After lunch, some of us chose to continue working on the building and others chose to organize activities for the kids. One of the activities was face painting. The kids LOVED it. They all wanted their entire faces painted and were so excited about it. We did mostly hearts, stars, crosses, flowers and butterflies.

After our work day, we headed back to our accommodation and got washed up and dressed for our night. We began the evening with a wine tasting at the Ridgeback winery. It was beautiful. After the tasting, we went to a small restaurant in town. There were three courses but we were only able to enjoy two of them.

All in all we had a very long, eventful day and we’re excited to see what’s in store for us in the next week.

Shannon Knight and Stephanie Collins